While most Christians are familiar with the stories in the Gospels of Jesus’ arrest, trial, torture, and crucifixion, they are less familiar with how those same stories have been used throughout history to justify not only anti-Jewish sentiment but, at times, violent persecution of Jews.
By Mark A. Chancey
Department of Religious Studies
Southern Methodist University
Millions of Americans have now gone to the theaters to see Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ, and more will go before the Lenten season is over. The movie has proven to be a profoundly moving experience for many viewers, especially for Christians who believe in substitutionary atonement, the idea that Christ died to pay the penalty for humanity’s sins. In that theological view, every blow, every insult, and every lash of the whip Christ receives is punishment that should have been directed at sinners instead. Those patrons interpret the movie through the lens of verses like Romans 5:8 (“God proves his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us”) and John 15:13 (“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”). For many of these viewers, it is they themselves, not Christ, who should receive the beating. It is they themselves, not Christ, who should be executed. Thus, it is they themselves, not the Romans or the Jews, who are responsible for his death. Gibson very effectively drives this point home by showing his own hand driving the nails into the hand of Jesus.
How, some ask, could a story about the salvation of the world be so controversial? How could anyone regard it as anti-Semitic? How could anyone find it offensive? Some people have dismissed concerns about the movie as mere political correctness and a misguided desire to try to avoid offending any party. Others have equated any criticism of it all as a full-frontal assault on Christianity and any critics as “humanists,” “secularists,” “atheists,” or “liberals.”
While the media have made much of the controversy over the film, few articles or TV stories have provided enough contexts to fully explain why the movie has raised concerns. Understanding why aspects of this movie could be seen as anti-Semitic requires understanding the unfortunate role Christianity has played in the historical development of anti-Semitism.
While most Christians are familiar with the stories in the Gospels of Jesus’ arrest, trial, torture, and crucifixion, they are less familiar with how those same stories have been used throughout history to justify not only anti-Jewish sentiment but, at times, violent persecution of Jews. The tragic truth is that the same imagery Christians associate with the suffering of Jesus is imagery that has all too often been associated with the suffering of Jews.
The Gospels’ passion narratives form the basis for the ancient Christian charge against the Jews of “deicide” -- the murder of God. All four of the Gospels depict the handing over of Jesus to the Romans by Jewish authorities and the demand of a Jewish crowd that Jesus be crucified. Most historians who have studied the issue agree that the Gospels deflect the responsibility for Jesus’ crucifixion away from the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, in a way that appears unrealistic. We know a lot about Pilate -- more than we know about a lot of provincial officials in the Roman world: he was not one to shy away from violence, and he did not have to crucify anyone he did not want to crucify. The Gospels, however, depict Pilate as extremely reluctant to have Jesus killed; indeed, he was practically forced to do so by the Jewish priests and the assembled crowds. Why would the Gospels tell the story in such a way? Christians living under Roman rule obviously benefited by downplaying the role Roman authorities played in the execution of Jesus. The result of the Gospels’ versions of the passion, however, was that Jews were often held primarily to be responsible for Jesus’ death.
Details in two Gospels made special contributions to Christian anti-Judaism. In Matthew 27:24-25, the Roman governor Pilate washes his hands of responsibility for Jesus’ death, and the assembled Jews cry out, “His blood be on us and our children.” In John 19:16-17, Pilate hands Jesus over to “them” to be crucified. While the writer probably intended the “them” to mean the Roman soldiers (who crucify Jesus in the other Gospels), the verses have often been interpreted as a reference to the Jewish crowd. The end result is that some Christians have thought that “the Jews” killed Jesus, and, especially in light of Matthew, that the Jewish people as a whole were forever to be held accountable.
We find a steady stream of anti-Jewish comments in early Christian literature, including claims like the following: Jews are stubborn because they refuse to accept Jesus. God has revoked his covenant with them. Their temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, and they were expelled from Jerusalem as punishment by God because they had killed his son. They were now doomed to wander the earth, never finding peace or a home. Collectively, such statements are known as the ad versos Judaeos, the “against the Jews,” tradition. The deicide charge figures prominently among them, as seen in the following examples.
A. In the Passover sermon of Melito of Sardis, a second-century bishop in Syria, we get repeated references to the idea that “the Jews killed Jesus.” He asks over and over again,”Why, O Israel, have you done this strange wrong?” At the end of the sermon, he describes the crucifixion: “He who hung the earth was hung/ he who affixed the heavens was affixed/ he who sustained all was suspended on the tree/ the master has been outraged/ god has been murdered/ the king of Israel slain by an Israelite hand.”
B. Justin Martyr (second century) says that misfortune has come upon the Jews -- the desolation of their land, the burning of their cities, and their expulsion from Jerusalem -- because of their deicide: “These things have happened to you in fairness and justice, for you have slain the Just One.”
C. Tertullian (2-3rd century, North Africa) writes that God has rejected the Jews because of their role in Jesus’ death, drawing special attention to Matthew 27:25 and John 19:12.
D. Augustine (4th century) argued that Jews should be identified with Cain from the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-16). What had Cain done? He murdered his brother. What was his punishment? To roam the earth. The Jews, just like Cain, had slain their brother Jesus, and they would be damned to wander the earth homeless, forever.
E. Gregory of Nyssa (4th century) wrote: “Slayers of the Lord, murderers of the prophets, adversaries of God, men who show contempt for the law, foes of grace, enemies of their fathers’ faith, advocates of the Devil, broods of vipers, slanderers, scoffers, men whose minds are in darkness, leaven of the Pharisees, assembly of demons, sinners, wicked men, stoners and haters of righteousness.”
F. John Chrysostom (4th century), author of one of the most used liturgies in Christendom, described Jews as drunken gluttons who hire prostitutes and who worship idols; people of darkness, not of the light; and “Christ killers.” Jews, who had murdered their master, were no better than dogs. They were, in fact, “wild animals suited only for slaughter.”
While many of these names may sound obscure now, these men were some of the most influential thinkers in early Christianity. Much Christian theology today is indebted to the way these men interpreted scripture, which is why they are counted among the “Church Fathers.”
Anti-Jewish rhetoric like this was not limited to ancient Christianity, however. There are numerous examples from the earliest centuries of the tradition to the modern period. Some of the worst come from the pen of Martin Luther, who started the Protestant Reformation. In one of his earlier writings, “That Jesus Christ was born a Jew,” he advised Christians to befriend Jews and treat them kindly, with the hope that many would convert to Christianity. Twenty years later, however, in 1543, Luther was advocating a very different treatment in a tract called “Concerning the Jews and their Damnable Lies.” What did he advise Christians to do to the Jews? Burn their synagogues, destroy their homes, force them to all move into one place together so Christians could monitor them, take away their prayer books and sacred writings, forbid their rabbis to teach, revoke their travel privileges, consign them to forced labor, and, if necessary, drive them out of Germany.
Unfortunately, anti-Jewish beliefs were all too often accompanied by active persecution of Jews, sometimes by official church authorities, sometimes by laypeople. This persecution included laws passed by church councils, some locally binding and others widely enforced, such as the following decrees:
- Jews may not appear in public during Holy Week (Council of Orleans, 538).
- Jews may not be judges, tax collectors (Council of Macon, 581) or hold public office (Council of Paris, 614, Council of Toledo, 633).
- Jewish children are to be brought up by Christians (Council of Toledo, 633).
- Jews must pay tithes to the Christian church (Council of Gerona, 1078).
- Jews may not build new synagogues (Council of Oxford, 1222).
- Jews must live in ghettoes (Synod of Breslau, 1267).
- Jews must wear distinctive clothing (Fourth Lateran Council, 1215); in France, the mark of distinction was a yellow star.
Beginning in the medieval period, many churches and communities began sponsoring the passion plays, pageants that retold the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. These productions were all too often full of negative and harsh depictions of Jews, who were collectively depicted as devious, harsh, and bloodthirsty. On many occasions, their performances were followed by violence against Jews.
To make matters worse, other superstitions about Jews arose in some Christian quarters. Jews were often accused of host desecration, defiling or destroying the communion wafers believed to be Jesus’ body, and thus committing deicide all over again. They were also accused of murdering Christians (usually children) to use their blood to prepare the Passover meal. Historians have demonstrated that both charges were false, but they resulted, nonetheless, in a considerable amount of anti-Jewish violence.
It is within this larger context that the furor over Gibson’s movie must be understood. The types of anti-Jewish sentiments mentioned above are foreign to most American Christians today, most of whom who have never heard of “deicide,” “blood libel,” or the ad versos Judaeos tradition. Many Christian denominations have issued official statements repudiating the deicide charge and committing themselves to fighting anti-Semitism. The fact that so many Christians have not regarded Gibson’s movie as problematic is in many ways a sign of progress on this front: most Christians are not carrying anti-Semitism with them into the theater, and they are not finding it on the screen once they get there.
”Most” is not the same as “all,” however. If some people can read The DaVinci Code and then believe that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, it requires no stretch of the imagination to think that at least a few viewers will believe Gibson’s movie is an accurate portrayal of events. They will see Gibson’s whitewashing of Pilate and his vilification of the Jews, points on which the movie goes well beyond what we find in the Gospels, and walk out thinking about how vicious “those Jews” were. The anti-Semitic slur “Christ-killer,” though repeated less frequently now than in decades past, is still heard. The minority of viewers who already harbor anti-Semitic feelings may well walk away feeling validated, having just witnessed “the Jews” kill Jesus on the movie screen. Those who still hold to the view that all Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus, and the view does still circulate in some sectors of American Christianity; will find nothing but confirmation of that belief in this movie.
Even more troubling is the possibility that the movie will fuel anti-Semitism in some areas abroad. Gibson, as is well known, deleted the subtitles for Matthew 27:25, “His blood be on us and our children.” The sentence is still present in the Aramaic, however, and it is entirely possible that it will be translated when the movie circulates in other areas. Anti-Semitism appears to be on the rise globally, and there are definitely audiences who will interpret Gibson’s film, however well intentioned it is, in the worst light possible, a minority of audiences, to be sure, but audiences nonetheless. In a world where even the atrocious and absurd blood libel charge still circulates, there is reason to be concerned about the ripple effects of this movie.
None of this means that Christians should not go to the movie or that it is wrong to be moved by it or that the spiritual experiences it has prompted are invalid or inappropriate. It does mean, however, that rather than belittling Jewish concerns and demonizing the film’s critics (Jewish, Christian, and other), we should perhaps listen. Gibson’s movie provides Christians with an opportunity to reflect on the depths of the suffering of Jesus, but it also provides us all with an opportunity to reflect on the unfortunate role the passion narratives have played in Jewish-Christian relations.
For further study:
For recent church statements on Jewish-Christian relations, see:
the Document page at Boston College’s Center for Christian-Jewish Learning.
For a theological appraisal of The Passion of the Christ, see:
Philip A. Cunningham, Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”: A Challenge for Catholic Teaching.
On passion plays, see:
Gordon R. Mork, “Jesus’ Passion on the Stage: The Traditional Melodrama of Deicide,” Journal of Religion and Society 6 (2004).
On Christian anti-Semitism, see:
John T. Pawlikowski, “Christian Anti-Semitism: Past History, Present Challenges: Reflections in Light of Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ,’” Journal of Religion and Film 8 (2004).
Clark M. Williamson, Has God Rejected His People? Anti-Judaism in the Christian Church (Nashville: Abingdon, 1982). (Williamson’s book served as the source for much of the discussion above, especially the patristic citations and the list of church council decisions.)
On the rise of global anti-Semitism, see:
The Anti-Semitism International link of the Anti-Defamation League.